Sunday, December 31, 2006

Resolutions...who needs 'em?

Who was it who said that 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions'? I could probably find out...thanks to the wonders of the Internet...but then again (to quote Catherine Tate) "Am I boverred?".

I had lots of good intentions with I started this blog, a couple of months ago. I promised myself that come what may, I would attempt to write something thought- provoking every day. But like so many resolutions...I haven't managed to keep it up.

There's something inherently human about that, isn't there? Time and again we all promise ourselves that we will make a change for the better in our lives. We will diet, start exercising, quit smoking, telephone our mother more often....And time and time again, we fail. What is it about us that makes us so weak willed?

St Paul understood this dilemma. Describing himself as a 'slave to sin' he said (in Romans 7) "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do. But what I hate, that I do." There is truth in this...none of us are proud of the weak-willed things we do...the over-eating, the over-consumption. In fact we hate some of the things we do (and criticise them in other people)...but we still do them ourselves. Our minds are in conflict with our wills. We are, in Paul's phrase, "slaves to sin".

The good news, for Christians, that whatever we do, however much our wills are in conflict with our minds, God loves us. God has always loved us, and God always will love us. We are, despite all we do which is ugly, "beautiful human persons" (in the words of my friend Pip Wilson). In contrast to all other religious systems, Christianity maintains that there is nothing we can do, by our own efforts, to bring ourselves into God's presence. God loves us SO much, that he sent his own son to us..."so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life" (John 3:16). God has done it. The wonderful truth is that God is much less interested in what we do, that what we are... his precious children. Like an earthly parent who keeps on loving their child however far they stray.

So, does that mean that resolutions, and 'improving ourselves' in general are unimportant? No. Speaking to the citizens of Athens, St Paul said that God is that in which "we live and move and have our being"(Acts 17:28). God is integral to our very core..."the ground of our being" in the words of Paul Tillich. Such a fundamental and deep connection with God is what gives us our sense of right and wrong, our moral code, our desire to improve and strive for perfection. It is, I believe, God within us who gently releases us from our slavery to sin. If we are open to that release, we will want to change, to become more like him.

New resolutions will be part of that process for many. My resolution for 2007? It's to spend less time in front of the one-eyed god in the living room, and more time with the God in whom I live and move and have my being. I can only hope that by doing so, I will be less of a slave to sin, and more of a child of God.

I'll let you know how I get on!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Best Christmas Present of All?

Christmas gets closer - invading every spare moment with present wrapping, checking out the TV schedules, feeling guilty about those Christmas cards that have not yet been sent. And as it does, I've been musing on why we Christians claim, with such certainty, that Jesus is the greatest Christmas present of all.

There are two reasons, primarily, I think. The first is the standard Christian belief that God has achieved (through Jesus' death and resurrection) the way for us to live forever with God. For that to be achieved, Jesus had, first, to be born. However, whilst that is great news, it stands as essentially an item of faith, held by believers in hope and trust. It is not something which connects with most people (that is, with the majority of people who will not be in church over this Christmas period). So what other good news is there?

To answer that, we have to do a little bit of imagining. Imagine, if you will, what you would do if you were God, and had the ability to stop all wars, poverty, hunger and disease. If you did…how would you do it? Given that all these great evils are directly attributable to human action (or lack of it in the case of disease) you would have to forcibly change human nature. You would have to remove the desire for personal gain, and implant a heart of love into each human being.

But if you did so…your human beings wouldn't be human beings any more…would they? Instead, they would be robots, automatons who simply do what they are told (in this case, love one another). Their love for each other, and for you (their God) would not be real…it would something you were forcing them to do.

So God had to devise another way of encouraging us, by our own free will, to love one another. So he sent Jesus to us, to show us what God is like - to be the ultimate example of self-sacrificing love. Jesus is God's best present to us, because it is only in Jesus that we can get a clear picture of what God is like, and make a choice to live God's way…strengthened by the Spirit of God living in us. God's Christmas present of Jesus is therefore the very key which will unlock the door of hunger, war, poverty and disease…for the whole world. I can't think of a better present for the world than that…can you?

If only we would unwrap God's present, and use it!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Conspiracy or Cock-up

So, after a three year investigation, Sir John Stevens has concluded that the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, was due to a cock-up, and not a conspiracy. (Let's get one thing straight before I offend anyone's sensibilities...the word 'cock-up' is either a reference to a scottish hair-do which was branded a mistake by puritan preachers; or a reference to the 'mess' caused (to its owner) by a cock being defeated in a cock fight. With its legs upward, the 'cock' was 'up'.) Now, back to the question of cock-up or conspiracy...

I have often debated - internally, and with friends - whether many of the messes that we experience around the world are the result of cock-up or conspiracy. Into which category, for example, does the decision to wage war on Iraq fall? Many would argue that the billions of pounds being earned by arms manufacturers who happen to be friends of the President of the USA is proof in itself of conspiracy.

I willingly acknowledge that there are powerful people in the world who will stop at nothing to manipulate circumstances for personal gain. Machiavelli's influence on contemporary geo-politics should never be discounted. On the other hand, having worked for 20-odd years in, and with, bureaucratic systems of administration - I have seen just too many examples of cock-up to believe that very many intended conspiracies have any likli-hood of success!

There is one conspiracy that I do believe, however...a holy one. I mean the conspiracy of God, with the willing collaboration of Mary, to set in train the circumstances which would lead to God himself, in human form, living among us for a few short, glorious years.

Perhaps, as Christmas approaches, we can set aside for a while our justifiable concerns about who is out to get us, and celebrate for a while the holy conspiracy of God - who set out to show us what life in touch with Ultimate Reality could be like.

End of Sermon.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Prepare the Way of the Lord...

I have a good friend who is somewhat of a decorator. He gets great pleasure out of transforming houses, and pieces of furniture with a deft stroke of a paintbrush. In fact if you leave any piece of furniture lying around long enough, it will find itself sanded down and re-varnished. “It’s all in the preparation” he will tell me. Personally, I’d just as soon go for the rustic, antique, ‘distressed’’s a lot less bother. But my friend Dave insists that anything which is due to be painted has first to be rubbed down to a glass-smooth finish….however long that might take! Decorating with him, as I’ve discovered to my cost, is an exercise in me picking up a paintbrush and saying “Can I paint it now?” while Dave opens another packet of sandpaper and says “Don’t be so’s all in the preparation!” John the Baptiser would seem to have agreed with him. In this Sunday's Gospel reading we heard the prophet John the Baptiser declare “Prepare the Way of the Lord”. To read the sermon I preached on this topic Click Here. Ponder and enjoy!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

That They May All Be One

For many years I was an employee of the YMCA. The motto of that movement was (and still is) John 17:21 "...that they may all be one" - a part of Jesus' great prayer for the unity of all his followers. I enthusiastically embraced that concept when working for that ecumencial charity; and I still do today - despite my ordination into a particular strand of the worldwide Church.

In the last couple of weeks, the Pope has had ecumenical dialogues with both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Bartholomew the First. It is encouraging indeed to see these different strands of Christianity working to set aside their differences, and find unity. (And of course it comes in direct contrast to the real battles for power currently being waged on the streets of Iraq between different factions of Islam).

One way of looking at Jesus' prayer for Unity is to argue that his prayer has already been answered, and has always been answered (in other words that there already is unity between all Christians who trust in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour). Certainly here in Emsworth there is remarkable unity between all the denominations of the town. Here Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, URC, Baptist and Charismatic churches all work exceedingly well together. Each of us has a particular distinctiveness about the way we worship - but we are all supportive of each other, and regularly combine our efforts for the greater good. (A number of our folks volunteer each week, for example, to work in the Emsworth Pastoral Centre, based in the Methodist Church Building).

It came as quite a shock to me, recently, to realise that from the perspective of the mega-churches (Roman Catholic and Orthodox), Anglicanism is a comparatively small, and somewhat insignificant fly in the pontifical ointment. That may not be entirely fair - the Pope did, last week, give considerable time to 'our' Archbishop. However, the Roman church is such a huge and influential body worldwide - whereas the Anglican church, even wordwide, barely gets a mention in the press outside of England. When the Pope travels - millions come out to see him. When the Archbishop of Canterbury does, the reaction is rather more muted.

There is even a sense in which we Anglicans need the Roman church much more than they need us. The influence of the Pope on the world stage is significant...and ensures that the Christian viewpoint is kept high on the agenda. If Anglicanism was to suddenly collapse tomorrow, the Roman church would sail on largely unaffected. The same could not be said of a collapse of the Roman church.

So, acknowledging all that to be true...why am I an Anglican? The reasons are numerous (including the fact that as a married man I could not be ordained a Roman Catholic priest in normal circumstances!) - but they boil down to this: I am very dubious about the power and influence which the Roman church gives, inevitably, to one man.

A 'good' Pope (however one might define the word 'good') can bring about substantial postive change with such power - but a 'bad' one can do a huge amount of damage. Anglicans are, in contrast, led by bishops, but governed by a council of bishops, priests and lay-people (the actually phrase is 'episcopally led but synodically governed'). This means that God's voice to one person can be tested by many - as advocated clearly by Scripture. In the Roman church, by contrast, the Pope may claim an infallible connection to God, with which no-one may legitimately argue. The evidence of Scripture is that God speaks to people in a wide variety of ways, and by no means always through the supreme leader of any institution.

The Anglican 'way' therefore gives a more reliable means of determining God's voice to the Church - even though the process of listening can be very painful for many.

But, with all that said - I continue to rejoice in being a member of a Worldwide Community of Christians, throughout the world, of all denominations. There is unity between us...praise God.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Chancellor's Pre-Budget Tinker

I usually try to refrain from making political comments. Having worked in Westminster, I'm only too well aware of the very real difficulties that Governments face when trying to set new policy - and by and large I'm sympathetic to the struggles of the Government to try to meet so many competing demands. But I'm going to break my rule today, and wonder what on earth our esteemed Chancellor was up to today...

I haven't seen the pre-budget report in detail...but I gather that he has imposed an increase in fuel tax of 1.5p per litre on petrol, and doubled the modest tax on air-line travel (up from £5 to £10 for short-haul flights).

As a Christian I believe passionately that we should be doing all we can to look after our planet. According to the wonderful, mythological book of Genesis, God gave humankind the planet, with the charge that we were to "rule over it and take care of it". Care for the environment has thus been a vital message of the Judeo-Christian tradition for millennia. (The Jews were letting land lie fallow every seven years well before modern science confirmed the necessity of such a practice).

So you would expect me to support the Chancellor's increased travel taxes...wouldn't you? Well, no actually. As I understand it, there are no plans to use the newly raised revenue for investment in any new energy technology. The £1billion that will be raised from the new air-travel levy will simply go into the Exchequer. And surely, a mere £5 extra on an airline ticket to spain is hardly going to slow down our use of cheap flights to Ibiza. The cost of a couple of pints? I don't think so. 1.5p on a litre of fuel...about 60p for an average sized tank...that's not going to make many car drivers decide to take our woefully inadequate public transport on a wet, cold, English winter day.'s exercise has simply been one of raising additional revenue for the Treasury - cloaked in the spin of 'being green'. I don't actually object to paying more taxes...we need more money for hospitals, schools and support for overseas aid and development. I simply object to being told that the extra tax I will pay is going to make a difference to the environment that I, as a Christian (and like so many others) would dearly love to protect for my grandchildren.

I strongly suspect we have been told a lie...and that's not something I expected from our Chancellor - a fellow Christian.

Please someone, tell me I'm wrong!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Communications Out, Captain

For a bit of late night R&R, I've just been watching an episode of Star Trek - The Next Generation, called "Damok". (For those who have never watched Star Trek, try to suspend the comedic thoughts in your head about "Beam me up Scotty", or "Klingons on the Starboard Bow" - it's a lot more thought provoking than that!).

"Damok" is the story of the struggle to communicate between two cultures - the Federation (represented by the Philosopher-Captain Picard) and the "Children of Damok". At first, the Federation think that the new race they are encountering speak only in riddles...a mixture of proper names and places. Without boring you with the whole tale (which you can watch at your leisure), Captain Picard eventually works out that the 'Children of Damok' communicate what they want to say only by using metaphors and allusions to shared stories. In our context, for example, if I wanted to communicate that I was feeling lost and lonely without my lover, I might say "Juliet on the Balcony". If I was feeling victorious, I might say "William after Hastings". (On the other hand if I was feeling worn out and defeated, I might say "Harold after Hastings"). Do you see what I mean?

However, the problem of communication by this method is compounded when the person you are trying to communicate with doesn't share your culture, and your stories. Someone who has never read Shakespeare, or heard of the Battle of Hastings, will not understand what you are trying to communicate.

This episode struck me as very profound. All our communication is ultimately based on what we have in common. Unless we share language, knowledge, and culture with another person, communication is very difficult.

I am reminded of my early days of working in the YMCA in South London, 20 years ago. I was working on the Reception desk, giving out keys and mail to residents of the hostel. One chap, a recent asylum seeker, with only a little English approached the counter and put his hand out for his key, saying,
"Room 413" (or whatever room was his). I thought he was being rather rude, and so replied, "Room 413 what? He looked very puzzled, and simply repeated his request,
"Room 413".
"Say please", said I.
"Oh," he said, looking embarrassed, "413 please".
I figured at that moment that I had scored a little victory for English politeness....until, after he had gone, a long serving receptionist who was also on duty said to me,
"Did you realise that there is no word in his language for 'please'? Where he comes from, you simply state your need, and either receive it or not depending on the person you are speaking to".

I learned an important lesson then. It is no good trying to communicate with someone else about any important subject unless you have some common experience on which to build (language, culture, custom).

Watching tonight's Star Trek episode brought that issue back home to me again. And I reflected how so many of the problems around the world, and within the Church, are based on the false premis that everyone else surely thinks like we do. That is why violence between people of different cultures is so prevelant. And I think it may be a significant reasons why the Anglican communion is tearing itself apart at the moment over homosexuality and women bishops.

When I listen to some of the invective being hurled around, I womder whether people on either side of these debates (and the more serious wars around the world) have ever really tried to understand why the 'other side' thinks as they do. Until all sides in all conflicts - secular, religious, or anglican - have taken time to truly hear and understand what the other side is saying, there can surely never be peace.

And the Communications will always be out, Captain.

Sunday, December 03, 2006 it jolly well comes...

I know, I know, it's been a long time since I've blogged. To my regular readers, I'm really sorry about that!

Those who know me will know already that I find Christmas rather a drag. I don't mean Christmas Day itself...I like nothing better than to be reminded again of the Christmas story, and to sing lusty carols at the top of my (not inconsiderable) lungs!'s all the tedious build up, and the feelings of guilt as I fail to make the grade, yet again, with regard to Christmas card writing, present buying, home visiting and so on.

Simon - my Rector, friend and boss, on the other hand...has an entirely different approach. His Christmas tree is already up; there's a wreath on his front door; and he's positively rubbing his hands together with glee at the prospect of all the forthcoming carol services. We manage to represent between us those two fundamental personality types, around Christmas: those who want to decorate the outside of their house with every illumination known to man; and those who like to go around cutting the cables!

I once found myself in a well known hardware store, just before Christmas - trying to buy some screws for another soon-to-be failed DIY attempt. The trouble was, I couldn't concentrate because the staff had seen fit to plug in a 'singing Christmas tree'. However, it didn't so much 'sing' and electronically 'beep' out the first two lines of Jingle Bells...over and over and over again. It was no good, I had to do I boldly walked over to the offending tree...and unplugged it! It was worth it, frankly, just to see the look of horror on the face of other shoppers. But then...along came a staff member, with one of those ridulous Santa hats on...who plugged the darn tree back in. War had been declared....and thence commenced a battle of wills. I waited until she had gone to stack some more shelves, then quickly unplugged the offending tree. She would come back to it, look around suspiciously, then plug it in again. This went on for some time, until I decided that whilst she was paid to work there, I wasn't going to be able to spend the rest of the day doing I left.

What is it, I wonder, that causes us some of us to approach this season with such different attitudes? Well, I can't speak for Simon. Perhaps he's managed to maintain more of his inner child than me. (And yet I love childishness in many forms...ask the children who watch my school assemblies!). For me it is, I suppose, ultimately a kind of repressed puritanical outrage at all the commercialism, the selfishness, the waste - as well as the reality that less and less people actually know why they are celebrating it.

Alongside that is a deep deep suspicion about the Santa Claus thing. Most years we hear a story of some Vicar or other who has crossed the line and 'ruined' Christmas by speaking the truth about Santa Claus at some school assembly. I have to say that I take my hat off to them...though I doubt I will ever have sufficient courage to incur the wrath of the parents at our local schools. There are more important battles to be won. But I have great sympathy with these rebels...let me tell you why.

Some years ago, Clare and I decided that we were uncomfortable about the Santa Claus story - and so we decided to come clean with our daughter. We let her in gently by saying to her - very lovingly you understand - that there was someone we had been telling her about who isn't actually real. We asked her to tell us who she thought that might be. She replied "Is it Jesus?"

And there is the nub of the matter. When our children are very small, we tell them stories about Jesus and Santa as if there were no distinction. Then, as they grow up, and realise that Santa doesn't actually come down the chimney, they naturally wonder whether Jesus is real too. We do, actually, end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater! It is just possible that the development of the Santa Claus myth, over the last 100 years, has done more damage to faith than any other single factor.

So...I say...its time for Christians to reclaim Christmas. Stories of Santa should be confined to the real myth of St Nicholas of Smyrna, who put coins in the stockings of poor women and prostitutes at night, when they hung them out to dry. He should be seen as an example of generosity towards the out the calling of the Gospel to be a friend to neighbours in need.

Perhaps if that story was told more often I wouldn't be such a misery at Christmas time!